In the minidocumentary series Poetry from the Bookstores [書店裡的影像詩], Taiwanese movie director HOU Chi-jan [侯季然] highlights 40 independent bookstores in Taiwan, focusing on the stories of their owners. He talked to « Lettres de Taïwan » literary website about his intentions while shooting this series and his love for lively bookstores and captivating stories.
Lettres de Taïwan: From One Day to When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep or Jolin Tsai [蔡依林]’s MV « We’re All Different, Yet The Same », movies you directed share romance and love as a major theme. In your view, is the series « Poetry from the Bookstores » another love story?
HOU Chi-jan: I think my previous movies all dealt with relations between people, and between people and the city. When Dreamland Image Co. Ltd. talked to me about their project to feature 40 independent bookstores in Taiwan, I immediately decided to focus on the owners of these bookstores. I think focusing on people makes stories more interesting.
Before I began shooting, I visited all the 40 owners without camera, in order to talk to them and to feel what kind of persons they were. This was very important for me to understand each person’s truth.
Yes, there is a lot of love in these stories but I started with people, people’s love for books or for a place. After shooting, I realized this was actually about people and their lifestyle, the life they want to create for themselves and their children.
How easily have these bookstores owners agreed to take part in this movie?
The production team dedicated a lot of time contacting bookstores owners all around Taiwan. As some of them rejected the idea, the production asked me whether if I wanted to contact them again, in order to persuade them. But I did not want to force them: they certainly had their reasons to say « no » at first and these reasons, be it a feeling of insecurity, should be respected. This is why I focused on those who agreed.
Nevertheless, some people had said yes but under conditions. I thought this should also be understood, so I visited each of them to understand for instance why they did not want their face to appear in the movie, and then I found a way to shoot that would make them feel comfortable. This is why in some stories, you can see or hear the owners but you can’t see their face. And in other stories, there are no people. I needed time to find the right way.
Sometimes, while the owners had agreed to be interviewed, they were not featured in the final movie. Indeed, in some cases, I thought the spirit of the bookstore could be better expressed without people. Sometimes, the most precious thing is not the talking. In these 40 stories, some are indeed very different from the others, and it results from choices I made while shooting or editing.
How much time did you spend in each bookstore?
I first visited each bookstore without a camera, then we arranged the schedule with approximately one day to shoot two bookstores, or about 20 days in total. For a documentary, this is quite short but a lot of time was spent in research ahead of the shooting.
Wasn’t it difficult to shoot in such narrow spaces?
For the shooting, our team was made of only five to six people, including a driver, a production assistant, a cameraman and a sound-recorder. We used a small camera so that we could move fast and catch people’s reactions and capture things at the right time. I did not have a very detailed script for each sequence but I gave the team a list of things that should be captured. I also asked some similar questions to each bookstore owner, such as « Which book is most important to you? », etc. But in the location, we acted just as if we did not have any script or detailed list. What is happening is the most important. I love unexpected situations.
Sometimes I chose a point that touched me most, which could be unrelated to books. People who watch this documentary series know it is about bookstores, so you don’t have to remind them constantly that this is a bookstore. The schedule was the most difficult thing. We had to complete the project in a limited time.
Which bookstore owner impressed you the most?
It would be the owner of Le Bo Second Hand Bookstore [九份樂伯二手書店] in Jiufen (a former gold mining town situated in today’s New Taipei, and where Hou Hsiao-hsien [侯孝賢]’s movie « A City of Sadness« was set). He is travelling around northern Taiwan using a car, train or bus in order to collect used books. He really impressed me. While he did not want to show his face to the camera, I talked to him and it helped me understand his reasons. He has a passion for books and his way to build a bookstore and to collect second hand books is very unique. I followed him from the morning to the beginning of the night, and shot him while he was collecting books. Initially, because the movie lasts only 3 minutes or so, I planned to meet him at an apartment where he was collecting books and to follow him to the closest MRT station. But once we started shooting, the cameraman and myself could not stop.We followed him in the MRT, transferred to the train, then to a bus, then climbed the mountain by walking. We were not talking much, just following him. It was like an adventure for us to understand the feelings and movements of this people in the city.
Some other bookstores have been reported in the media many times, which leads their owners to repeat the same story to everyone. I had to find some different questions or to step back to see things in a different light. But I really enjoy listening to their stories. For example, the owner of KingBooks Bookstore [金萬字書店] in Tainan, is the son of the founder. He told me that 30 or 40 years ago, their bookstore had a business of sending books into the city’s jail. The prisoners wanted to read, so he managed to find people to sneak books into the prison. The most popular books were porn books which they had to hide inside normal books. Though this kind of stories, you can really understand the history of the city and the tale of this era.
Which kind or reader are you?
My parents used to buy books for me when I was a child. Like many people of my generation who were living in the city in Taiwan, my parents wanted me to read more. I was lucky to have some good books by then. I was also going to the comic books store to read. It is a very important memory. Reading is a very important thing to me.
As a director, do you get inspired by books?
I long had the dream to shoot some stories I read when I was a kid or a teenager. But I learned the difference between literature and film making. You need to think in a different way. A good book does not always make a good movie, and sometimes, bad literature is good for shooting. The way the imagination works in a movie is very different from a book. This is why I am not as eager as ten years ago to shooting a movie adapted from a book. While making a movie, you can be inspired by a special book but you have to think in a cinematographic way.
In May, 2015, Hou Chi-jan topped the list « China 30 Best Short Movies Directors » with the documentary series Poetry from the Bookstores. The film premiered in the United States, September 2015, at the Guam International Film Festival, where it was a Grand Jury Nominee for Best Documentary Short.